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Listen to Children Talk About Covid-19

A debriefing of twelve kids, with recommendations for parents and teachers

by Merle Froschl, Nancy Gropper and Barbara Sprung

“COVID is messing up our lives. We are isolated from the world and we can’t go anywhere.”

“I never want to wear a mask again. I can’t breathe in this thing. It’s hard. I want to see my friends.”

“As soon as this is over, I’m having a sleepover with every one of my friends.”

This past year, children have lived during the unique time of a world-wide pandemic. A time that the adults in their world — parents, grandparents, extended family members and teachers — had never experienced before. As the adults who guide their lives learned how to cope with an unprecedented situation, children also had to figure out how to adapt in this new world. They have had to adjust to virtual learning, not seeing friends, and being home full time with parents, to name a few. And, in some cases, children have faced the loss of a friend or loved one.

While there are excellent resources available to guide parents and teachers about how to talk to children about COVID, much less is known from the perspective of children themselves. What have young girls and boys been thinking and feeling? And what can we, as parents and teachers, learn from them?

To explore this, we reached out through colleagues and family and interviewed twelve children, girls and boys, between the ages of eight and 11. The children were diverse in terms of race/ethnicity, living in urban, suburban, and rural locales. All but one, who was homeschooled, attended public schools.

Children’s answers showed factual knowledge and understanding about COVID, and their responses demonstrated resilience and coping skills. Every child was well aware of the dangers of COVID, and followed the rules for safety, no matter how restricting or inconvenient. Several children were concerned and understood that their parents were also having a hard time, working from home and responsible for more childcare.

Fortunately, the virus did not fatally impact anyone these children knew. Four of the children did not know anyone who had the virus. For the others, the people they did know (uncle, cousin, mother, neighbor) have all recovered. Still, their responses to our questions highlighted what they are missing.

Some children indicated particular sources of comfort. After the completion of the interview, one child went off camera and came back with a stuffed animal that she wanted to show. Another showed his new puppy, and another made mention of his cat more than once.

Each and every child fondly remembered the world before COVID, and they expressed a deep longing to return to that world. Their responses to our questions are worthy of our attention.

Interviews typically lasted about 30 minutes. We asked them:

• Tell me some things you know about COVID-19.

• How is your life different since COVID-19? How do you feel about these changes?

• What do you do to keep busy at home when you are not doing schoolwork?

• What do you miss the most from your life before COVID-19 started?

• What do you hope your life will be like a year from now?

• What do you think is important for parents and teachers to know about how kids like you feel about COVID-19?

What Children Know

“It’s affected all of us; we have to self-quarantine, stay at home, wear masks, hand sanitize.”

“It’s very very unsafe.”

It became very clear that the children we interviewed were aware of the virus and knew that it is contagious and dangerous. One gets a sense of their concern from their short but pointed answers. Typical responses include: “really dangerous,” “a lot of people get sick,” “some go to the hospital, some die,” “killed hundreds of thousands of people,” “a lot of people have died,” “the numbers are really up.”

Some children knew specific facts: “19th type of corona virus; it’s related to bats; it came to us in February.” One mentioned that “it is affecting small businesses; staff are having a hard time; they may lose their jobs and have trouble finding new ones; owners are not seeing customers.” One third-grade girl expressed post-COVID anxiety regarding germs. She cautioned — avoid crowds, be aware of germs, and said, “You might go into a big place and get something like the flu.”

Importance of Friends and Family

“I miss being with my friends because we talk a lot about things, and it would be really fun and (then) we started doing home school and I really miss them.”

“This is going to seem obvious, but when this is over, I am going to see everyone — all my cousins, family, Grandma, Grandpa — everyone!”

When asked, “What do you miss the most from your life before COVID?” The number one answer was: “My friends!” Children wanted to see friends, hug friends, talk to friends.

All the children interviewed spoke about how sorely they missed being able to interact personally with their friends. Playing online games, seeing classmates on a Zoom screen, or talking on the phone were poor substitutes. A few children were able to play one-on-one with a friend outside, which was helpful. Overall, lack of physical contact with friends was a serious loss for all the interviewees.

The number two answer to what do you miss was: “My family!” Children missed seeing their grandparents, their cousins, their uncles and aunts. This was true whether family lived near or far away.

Issues with Online Schooling

“Teachers should make school fun.”

“It’s a shortened day without any specials.”

“If you do something wrong, they kind of just say, ‘Can you fix this?’”

During spring/summer of 2020, schooling was all virtual, but now most children are either in a hybrid system or back full time.

One major concern on the part of educators is that the shift to partial or fully online learning will widen achievement gaps that already exist because of socio-economic and racial/ethnic inequities. But even for children from families that have the educational and technological resources to support learning at home, there are concerns, grounded in developmental theory and research, about the harm that can result from social and educational isolation.

Most children we interviewed were not positive about online learning. They reported that there were glitches in the system and that there was little (or no) help available if they did not understand something during a lesson. Children were annoyed by technical difficulties, and younger students were hampered by lack of facility with keyboarding. Children who were in school part-time seem to fare better than those who were fully online.

Several children said that there was little opportunity to get help if they didn’t understand something. One child said that when she made a mistake, her teacher just said, “go back and check your work.”

A couple of children talked about the cutback or omission of specials such as music, art, library — all areas in which children are afforded opportunities to develop talents and competencies that can lead to increased self-esteem outside the realm of school academics. Children can see their classmates online, but there seems to be little opportunity for interaction. One said, “Actually, it’s sad to see your classmates on Zoom.”

However, for some, there was a silver lining. One sixth grader was more positive: “School is … easier … and I get to interact with my family a lot more than I usually do going to school five days a week.”

The Need for Challenging Activities at Home and In School

“At first, I was watching TV for the rest of the day after Zoom school. My Mom said, ‘You can’t do that.’ Now, I read a lot. I love to read.”

Children talked about having to stay home most of the time. A couple of children said they had outings like a family walk or a one-on-one outside playdate with a friend. Most expressed frustration with the lack of activities, too much time spent online, and lack of exercise. One boy expressed his longing for “projects,” wishing that his teachers and parents would provide them. At home he had started his own origami project, a self-initiated way to challenge himself.

One child did say that he had more family interactions than before COVID. For the most part, however, children spoke about each family member working from home on a computer, with little time to do much else. As one boy put it, “it’s hard to do anything — everyone in my house is just sitting in their rooms on electronics.”

When asked about what they do to keep busy when they are not doing schoolwork, our respondents mentioned a variety of activities including reading, playing with siblings, playing video games alone or online with friends, watching TV, playing with pets, building with Legos, cuddling stuffed animals, talking with friends on the phone or via a social app on the computer.

These activities are probably not very different from what they did to occupy their free time at home before the COVID pandemic. But now children are spending so much more time at home without friends to play with that there are undoubtedly times when they yearn for additional stimulation. In the words of one of our respondents, “There is not a lot to do.”

More structured and challenging activities are essential to the development of positive self-esteem. From a developmental perspective, we also know during the middle years, children have increased capacities in the realms of logical problem solving, memory, metacognition and strategic thinking. But children need to be challenged in order to hone these abilities. The necessary social distancing of the past year has undoubtedly deprived them of many experiences that would have stimulated development in these realms. Now is the time for parents and teachers to seize the moment and think creatively about how to provide children with a host of interesting and challenging experiences to compensate for the experiences they missed during the pandemic.

The Value of Interacting with Peers

“I miss seeing my friends…going outside and playing with my friends…having lunch with my friends …talking to them

Of all the COVID stresses and strains revealed by children during the interviews, the lack of peer friendships stood out as the greatest loss. In a world without pandemics, children are typically afforded an array of opportunities to interact with peers. Among these are adult organized games and sports activities within or outside of school. There are also the informal activities that take place at home or in the neighborhood — -play with one or more children, birthday parties, family visits with cousins, neighborhood pick-up games and other outdoor activities that may occur among a mixed age group of peers.

Clearly the children we spoke to yearn for peer interactions. Some of the children said they missed organized sports activities such as soccer or softball but ALL the children we interviewed emphatically noted that they missed seeing their friends. In fact, one mother reported that her daughter began crying immediately after the interview was over because it reminded her how much she missed her friends.

These yearnings attest to the importance of peer interactions in children’s lives and to the value of Social Emotional Learning. For example, adult organized athletic activities including team sports within and outside of school provide opportunities to cooperate and collaborate with peers. They provide countless opportunities to practice expressing emotions in socially appropriate ways; to witness and gain a better understanding of how others are feeling; to collaborate with and support peers in order to achieve shared goals.

Within the classroom, collaborative group projects are another way to promote Social Emotional Learning. Such projects provide students with opportunities to apply academic knowledge — show what they know — and by collaborating with others, they also have the opportunity to learn from their peers.

There is no question that adult-initiated group activities are important. But child-initiated activities that take place free from direct adult supervision are also an essential developmental ingredient.

When children are in charge of their peer interactions, they have countless opportunities to take the point of view of others: to use verbal skills to negotiate rules and disagreements; to teach younger children and learn from older or more experienced peers. These are all valuable lifelong skills.

As children return to school full-time and vaccinations become more and more widespread, children’s lives will return to normal, albeit a “new normal.” Still we should not forget the interruptions in friendships that occurred because of the pandemic. With little or no regular contact, some old friends may now seem like strangers and children may find it hard to pick up where they left off. Parents and teachers have an essential role to play in facilitating the renewal of old friendships and in establishing new ones.

What Have We Learned?

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided children with a hard lesson about the danger of a disease that results in serious illness and death. The children we interviewed provided evidence that they were aware of this danger to themselves and others.

Their responses make clear how important it is for children to have opportunities to share what they know and feel. It also makes clear to us that the adults in their lives, be they parents, other family members, or teachers, acknowledge the difficulties of living during the COVID pandemic and provide space to talk about it at home or in school. Adults should feel free to share their own feelings, particularly the challenges and frustrations resulting from changes in home life, work life, social life, and children’s school lives. In school, hearing how other children have experienced COVID can promote empathic feelings towards peers.

Children can also be helped to recognize some of the pros of life during a pandemic including children and parents getting to spend more time together or that days spent at home participating in online education eliminated the morning rush out the door. Children are also afforded greater independence in learning to self-pace as they complete their schoolwork and in learning not to interrupt their parents when their parents are working from home.

As scary to children as awareness of the life-threatening nature of this epidemic may be, it also may serve to stimulate some positive developmental outcomes. Children in the middle years are shifting away from the egocentrism of early childhood and are increasingly able to take the point of view of others. This developmental shift does not occur in vacuum; it grows out of experience in the social world.

COVID-19 has given children the opportunity to think about the Golden Rule in a new way. Wearing a mask does not just serve to protect oneself; it serves to protect others around you including strangers as well as family and friends. It also increases awareness of our shared vulnerability which can lead to a greater sense of concern for others. The children we spoke with offered insights that speak to their awareness of the point of view of others. When we asked, “What do you think is important for parents and teachers to know,” they responded:

“It’s different for teachers and parents than for kids. Grown-ups are more likely to get the virus.”

“Seeing so many grown-ups passing away — for kids that’s sort of a lot of pressure.”

“…not to worry about us a lot ’cause we’re also getting used to it too. It feels like parents feel bad for their kids, but we can handle it too and can probably speak out more.”

“…Try to get through this. Not stress about it so much.”

“…to stay safe.”

Post Pandemic Suggestions for Teachers and Parents

As we look forward to a post-pandemic return to more normal activities inside and outside the home, teachers and parents will need to recognize and acknowledge the difficulties that children have weathered during the pandemic — isolation, confinement and, above all, lack of friendship. Helping children to express their thoughts and feelings about their experiences during COVID provides an opportunity to build understanding of the unique period both adults and children have been through.

“Kids love having fun and you can’t take that away from them.”

This quote says a lot about what children have been missing during the pandemic. Fun mainly comes from interacting with friends during and after the school day. Now, as children return to the classroom, helping them reconnect with former friends and build new friendships provides opportunities for activities that build (or rebuild) social-emotional skills across the curriculum.

For teachers:

Fill the class library with books about friendship — myths, fables, chapter books and picture books. Read them aloud and encourage children to read on their own.

Arrange celebratory events around friendship. Plan a “back together” party at school.

Provide opportunities to write stories, poetry, and songs celebrating friendship.

Lead discussions and have children write/dictate stories about positive and negative feelings they experienced during the pandemic. Share some of your own experiences.

Ask children to reflect on something positive they had learned during the pandemic, e.g., learned that I loved to read; liked spending more time with my sister or brother.

Have children produce short, humorous skits/videos about glitches that happened during the pandemic, e.g., technical problems with online schooling or the morning rush to get to school and remembering to take your mask.

Have children research online activities such as museum tours, zoo tours, musical performances, etc. available online that they can visit while at home and feeling bored.

Provide a list of recommendations of books that children should read over the summer. Make sure that these books are readily available through the school or public library.

For parents:

Invite children’s friends for a “back together” sleepover or a cupcake baking party. Help children make decorations for the event.

Encourage new friendships as well as reunions with former friends. Be aware that there may be some shyness/awkwardness as children reconnect.

Provide art materials so children can express their feelings about the pandemic, e.g. paints, crayons, clay.

Make a conscious effort to talk about both the positive and negative feelings you shared during the Pandemic, e.g., loneliness, too much screen time, isolation. Also, good things like more family time, cooking together, no morning rush to get to school and work.

Look for online exhibits at museums and zoos or elsewhere, musical performances, or other public access activities that might interest your children. Find out if and when such activities will be open for in-person visits and make plans to take your children.

Ask school administrators or teachers to provide math materials over the summer that can reinforce the learning goals for the grade your child has just completed.

Ask school administrators or teachers to provide a list of recommended books for summer reading.

Take any opportunity to have fun and enjoy your time together.

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Merle Froschl, Nancy Gropper and Barbara Sprung, educators and writers, have each spent 40+ years fostering educational equity for all children. They are coauthors, most recently, of Cybersafe Young Children: Teaching Internet Safety and Responsibility, K-3 (Teacher’s College Press, 2020)

Merle Froschl, educator and author, has spent 40+ years fostering educational equity for all children. She is Director, Education Equity, at FHI 360.